U2 stretched their post-ironic '90s reinvention to the creative and commercial limits with 1997's Pop, an album plagued by production difficulties that, to this day, remains one of the band's lowest selling (and criminally underrated) records. Leaping off the Zooropa diving board even further into hard dance and techno influences (while, by extent, experimenting with loops, sampling and drum programming), the band foolishly allowed manager Paul McGuinness to book the ensuing PopMart Tour before the album was finished, forcing them to quickly finish the album without the usual amount of care. That said, Pop does have its share of brilliant moments, from the aggro-tech muscle of "Do You Feel Loved" and "Mofo" through the shimmering balladry of "Staring At The Sun" and lounge fly jazz meditation of "If You Wear That Velvet Dress." U2 had the good sense to "dream it all up again" with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, but on Pop, they successfully pushed the boundaries of what a U2 album could (and should) sound like, leaving behind an immensely curious (to say the least) album that more than deserves a second look.
Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge
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Inspired aesthetically (at least according to Bono) by Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." Makes sense—the album more than earns its namesake by bursting through the gate with this eyebrow-lift of club beats, overdriven porn soundtrack guitars and Bono's love riddle theatrics. Can't hear this without thinking of The Edge's handlebar mustache…
"Do You Feel Loved"
All shimmering trip-hop shuffle and thick, heavy jungle beats… plus the sexy as fuck Adam Clayton bassline to end all others. "You got my shoelaces undone," Bono sighs and moans, "Take my shirt, go on take it off me / You can tear it up if you can tie me down…" Hey now, baby child…
This song… baffles me… in the best way possible, of course. Bono channels a little Salmon Rushdie and sings an unabashedly earnest, intimate set of lyrics directed to his late mother over an aggro, relentlessly synth bass roar that sounds about as far removed from traditional U2 as anything… um, ever. "Mother, am I still your son? / You know I've waited for so long to hear you say so…" Absolute craziness. Love, love, love this one…
"If God Will Send His Angels"
Things cool down a little bit on this shimmering, cool liquid bit of gospel-blues guitar business. "It's just you and me and the rain," Bono coos, "It's the blind leading the blonde / It's the stuff of country songs…" A little aimless in spots, sure, but the band rides a good groove on this one…
"Staring At The Sun"
Definitely benefited from a little polish (see The Best Of 1990-2000), but even here, it's hard not to get swept up in the sweaty summertime vibes. "It's been a long hot summer / Let's get undercover / Don't try tot hard to think… Don't think at all…" Sigh… kills me. Takes on a life of its own when Bono and The Edge perform it acoustically on tour…
"Last Night On Earth"
Okay, so this one just feels… a little unfinished. The guitars are a little scattered… the synthesizer stuff never really gels… I get that it's supposed to all build up into this monolithic sweeping chorus, but it never quite happens. C'est la vie, can't win 'em all, right?
Again, usually prefer the Best Of 1990-2000 "new mix," but this is a definite overlooked favorite. It's all about the bridge section and Bono's breathy falsetto ("Am I aaaaall… ready gone…"). The chorus gets a little messy with The Edge overdoing it with the Whammy pedal, but nitpicking aside, it's a pretty great song. "I'm not coming down… I'm not cominggggg down…"
Okay, so, um… I'm a fan… but this is where Pop starts to lose me. This thing is an aimless (to put it kindly) mess of not-nearly-crunchy-enough beats, Bono babbling and the biggest hook-free black hole I've ever heard on an otherwise pretty great album. Let's just move on and pretend this didn't happen…
"The Playboy Mansion"
…And, well, yeah. Almost as numbingly bad as "Miami," but with at least the vaguest semblance of a structure. The fact that U2 were even remotely concerned with the Playboy Mansion has to be part of the problem, right? Those dopey slide guitar lines are currently rolling my eyes right back into my skull…
"If You Wear That Velvet Dress"
Okay, now that's more like it. I get the shivers every time I hear this song—something about Bono's "I'm totally going to make some sex with you right here and now" whisper over that brittle acoustic guitar intro. "Tonight the moon's playing tricks again / I'm feeling seasick again / The whole world could just dissolve into a glass of water…" Shuddering just at the thought.
Another semi-aimless track, but this one kind of works anyway. Love the slow burn of Adam's bass beneath the building layers of keyboard haze and buzzy electric guitar hum. Toss in one of Bono's most desperately lost vocals to date and you've got one gorgeous mess of a song.
"Wake Up Dead Man"
"Jesus help me / I'm alone in this world / And a fucked up world it is too…" We've, um, come a long way from "40" in terms of "U2 album-ending prayer songs," but an album decked out in flashy beats and neon colors couldn't really end any other way, could it? If Achtung Baby was the sound of chopping down The Joshua Tree, then "Wake Up Dead Man" is U2 burning down the supermarket and moving on to bigger, bolder, brighter, more (ahem) "Beautiful…" places. It was certainly an interesting ride, though…
Have a favorite song from or memory of U2's Pop? Get the conversation started in our comments section below.